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Crossing Borders: A Conversation with Three Mainland Women Immigrants

February 1, 2012

Since 1997, an estimated 217,000 mainlanders have immigrated to Hong Kong. They are sometimes called the “new immigrants, ” as distinct from those who came from the mainland when the city was under British rule. Currently, the HKSAR government permits 150 mainlanders per day to become permanent Hong Kong residents. Many of the new immigrants are mainland-born children of Hong Kong permanent residents or mainland women married to Hong Kong husbands. 

In a conversation with Si-si Liu, a Hong Kong-based activist on human rights and women’s issues, three women immigrants from the mainland share their experiences: why they came to Hong Kong, their lives in Hong Kong as immigrants, their view of life in China, and their outlook on their future in Hong Kong.

Mei is in her 30s and a former kindergarten teacher in Guangdong Province. She married a man from Hong Kong and immigrated in 2009 hoping to provide a better education for her child. Lian, also in her 30s and the wife of a Hong Konger, came to Hong Kong in 2007 from Guangdong where she had worked in a floral shop. Hua came to Hong Kong in 1997 after completing primary school to join her mother and brother. (We have changed their names to protect their identities.)

Si-si Liu: Why did you come to Hong Kong?

Mei: I didn’t like the education options in the mainland. I teach kindergarten, but most of my friends teach primary and secondary school, so I know the quality of education in the mainland is very uneven, that some teachers are good, others bad. Some of my fellow classmates who were trained to teach kindergarten were allowed, through their connections, to teach primary school. Also the administrative side of kindergartens is chaotic. Back in the mainland, I worked in a government kindergarten, and even there, there were loopholes and gaps in administration. Also, there were some village-run ones and private, for-profit ones that I wouldn’t even consider working for.

Hua: I came to Hong Kong in ‘97 because of the one-child policy. We had more than one child at home. My mother, my younger brother, and I came here to settle; not my father. My mother and brother came here first, and I stayed in the mainland with my father. My grandmother began looking after me when I was in 5th grade. I came to Hong Kong after finishing primary school, 6th grade, to continue my education here. Families in the city with a second child have to pay a fine, and the mother would be forced to have her tubes tied. Also, my father was something like a civil servant—though he didn’t formally work for a government department, his work was for the government—a second child would have affected his career. Considering all those factors, it seemed that our living in Hong Kong would have the least impact on his career.

Mei: We were fined. I’m the third child of the family; because they had me, my father was fined—back then, 2,000 yuan wasn’t a small sum. My father was also sent to Re-education-Through-Labor because of that. I forget how long he served re-education. I just remember that, after he was released, he owed a lot of money which he was still trying to pay off ten years later.

Lian: My child was born in Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong is better than the mainland in many ways besides education. I’ve seen many nasty things there, even though I did not personally experience them. There, for example, in kindergarten, they would treat your child well only if you give extra money and gifts. Many of the government departments are like this; for instance, if you don’t know anyone, you would have to use money to speed things up. It’s rather corrupt. Just to give an example: last year, my uncle was very sick and went to Guangzhou to see a doctor. His condition at the point was already very critical, but the hospital said he would have to wait for more than a week. In the end, I gave the hospital a “red envelope” with 5,000 yuan. I gave the money to them at 10:00 in the morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon, they told me that my uncle could have the operation. I just feel that all kinds of policies on the mainland are very corrupt. You have to use the backdoor and connections for everything. That’s why I chose to come here.

Si-si Liu: What were your first thoughts or impressions of Hong Kong when you arrived?

Lian: From different perspectives everything is positive; everything is very orderly. I mean, people line up when they go shopping; it’s not like this in the mainland. When I took my son to get vaccinations, in China if you’re mean enough you’d definitely be first in line; here it’s very orderly.

Mei: For children going to school,  it’s much better.

Si-si Liu: Were there any difficulties applying to come to Hong Kong? The authorities issue one-way permits [to stay in Hong Kong] for 150 mainlanders daily. And it is public security [on the mainland] that decides which provinces and who will get these permits.

Lian: The situation inside is very corrupt. You need to use money for everything. My husband came to Hong Kong in 2000; he submitted his application four years before that. At the time, he thought that since he had no work in Hong Kong he might as well wait. Suddenly, something didn’t seem right: why no news for such a long time. At the time we wanted to get married. So we relied on a contact in public security to check. It was then that we found out that the application form was missing. How terrible! How could it have disappeared? Where could it have gone? So we found the person who had helped us fill out the application previously to help us fill out another application. Very soon, within a few months, it was approved. After that, my husband and I got married.

Afterwards, since my husband got a Hong Kong identity card, I applied for a family-visit pass. I thought I could get passes to visit him in Hong Kong three months at a time. One time, when I went to apply, the official said, “Huh? How come your husband has another wife?”

“What? My husband has another wife?” I said. He said he could even tell me her name. Thinking that we registered our marriage in Hong Kong and had a marriage certificate, I said to him, “I’m officially married.” Of course I was loud and angry. I had all the documents, of course I was confident. That’s why I say that at the time it was really corrupt. That happened before 1997. After waiting four years, my husband found out his application was missing, and suddenly he had another wife.

Si-si Liu: So that means that on his records he had another wife, but that wife’s name wasn’t yours.

That meant that my husband’s documents were used to get someone else in (to Hong Kong). This happens quite often in China.

Si-si Liu: Ah-Mei, what do you remember most from when you first came to Hong Kong?

Mei: In fact, at the time, I wasn’t in a hurry to come to Hong Kong because I already had a Hong Kong identity card—I could come three months at a time. If it weren’t for my son, I wouldn’t have applied for permanent residency in Hong Kong. I never thought that within a year of applying, my son was approved. But a lot of unpleasant things happened during the application process. When submitting the application, the city, the town, and the village authorities all wanted to verify your identity. But I took the filled out application form from the village to the town, the town official said, “Hey, the form shouldn’t have been filled out this way! Quick, re-do the application!” So I took the application from the town and took it back to the village to fill out again. Then I took the new application to the city. Then, the city official told me that shouldn’t have been filled out this way. At the time, I just got my driver’s license; maybe they wanted me to practice my driving. I was so frustrated at the time from the whole thing that I just stood in front of the official and cried. I said, “What exactly do you want? I’ve been going around and around so many times. You know the village isn’t near the town, and you want me to keep going back and forth.” When I actually came to Hong Kong, got my identity card and my home visit permit, I felt I finally freed myself from the Communist Party. I can say I’m Chinese, but I don’t like China’s government structure—the one-party dictatorship.

Si-si Liu: For all of you, what was the biggest challenge after coming to Hong Kong?

Lian: It was housing. It was so hard to get on the waiting list for public housing. My husband waited for seven years. Actually, nothing went really smoothly. At the end, it was only because of government demolition that we got it. If it weren’t for government relocation, we might have waited even longer. Some friends who came to Hong Kong around the same time I did waited for ten years to get public housing. Si-si Liu: Before getting public housing, where did you live?

Lian: I lived with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and some children—about a dozen of us in a small apartment. Right now at least we have a roof over our heads, but it’s a very small space, about 270 square feet; therefore I am unable to give my children a good environment to study in. Even my friends visiting from China say, “Are you kidding, my bathroom is bigger than your apartment.”

Mei: I also have housing problems. My place is about 400 square feet; I can still partition out a small room. But all of a sudden, having my father- and mother-in-law, I feel like I have much less private space. Even though most times they help with housekeeping, so I don’t have to worry, I’m just not used to living with elderly people. Otherwise, everything else is okay. In fact, I don’t think they really want to stay with us either. Sometimes when I can’t stand it, I just go back to China to take a breath.

Mei: In terms of support for old people by the Hong Kong government, I feel very satisfied; China’s support for the elderly isn’t as good. In China, if you don’t have money, don’t get sick. They would prescribe a lot of medicines just for a simple cold. And they ask for 200-300 yuan each time. The parents of the kids I used to teach all worked in government offices or were doctors in hospitals. Now these hospitals have bad reputations, and nobody dares to go. The spirit of helping others is no longer there; they just care about grabbing money. Very few locals go to anymore; most of them are foreigners. Any cold will cost around 200 yuan. Doctor’s own children who get sick just take a few pills, but when we go with a cold, they give us IV. Serious or not—IV. They don’t make money without giving medicine and IVs.

Lian: Every doctor has a quota, it’s about 200,000 yuan. They need make that in order to get their regular salary. If not, they will deduct it from your pay. That’s China.

Mei: And the pharmacists working in hospital pharmacies don’t have to pay for medicine. That’s because in every package of medicine, there is bound to be one or two missing pills. that’s to say they steal them. As for powdered medicine, you’d be missing a few packs. Some even use these as gifts. There once was a gynecologist who asked me, “Teacher, do you want a placenta?” Someone just gave birth and the doctor used it as a present. This is actually illegal. You can’t just take other people’s placenta. At that time, I didn’t dare take it.

Si-si Liu: Were there other difficulties?

Mei: I wasn’t mentally occupied. I’m not employed, and mainly stay home to take care of my kid. When I go out I just go to some agencies to take some classes. Once on QQ [instant messaging service], I shared something I felt deeply and said, “I didn’t realize there is such a thing as a free lunch in this world.” At that time, I just signed up for an English class for women. They realized I was unemployed and said I could apply for a fee waiver. I later asked myself, “Why are there so many free things in society?” I then realized this is to help unemployed people find work, and to advance the society. I took it but now I feel guilty. In China, I’d never been a volunteer; when I came here, I never thought about being a volunteer. But because there were so many free classes and Employees Retaining Board courses, that’s why I really feel guilty and wanted to give back to society. This was why I started volunteering.

Si-si Liu: Hua, do you have anything to add? For example, your feelings towards Hong Kong?

Hua: After I gained a lot of experience, I felt I spoke very differently. For example, after watching so much television in Hong Kong, when I return to the mainland, things that had seemed normal before now seem strange. For example, when I watch the news in China, suddenly a whole chunk would be missing, replaced by a commercial, say, of the Hong Kong government making an appeal to the people. I really didn’t get it. Later, I attended an student exchange event for high school and college students from Hong Kong and the mainland. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) document our trip and filmed our activities and conversations. I saw the report in Hong Kong. Later, when a relative saw it on the mainland, he said, “Big sister, when you were speaking suddenly other things were edited in. What did you actually talk about?” I thought it was strange. RTHK later sent me a disk. That’s why it stuck in my mind. Actually, at the time, I probably spoke about freedom of expression, the June Fourth crackdown, some other things, and nothing else. I then realized that the editing was not accidental—it happened quite often.

Mei: In mainland broadcasts, Hong Kong news stories that refer to June Fourth are always edited out. That type of news would never be broadcast in the mainland. I once asked a parent who was a news editors in China frankly, “Hey, can you stop filming this leader or that, inspecting here or there, every day? It’s always the same people, and same bases. Can you pay a little attention to the people and their lives?” Without even thinking, he said, “That’s impossible! My superiors tell me that every night I have to edit this in. There’s no alternative.” Therefore, even if you don’t know a leader, you’ll get to see him until you remember. Also, as far as I know, Guangzhou reporters really hate Dongguan reporters because a lot of things in Dongguan are kept from the public view. Anything we got to see is very superficial. They hide a lot of things and don’t allow reporters from other places to do interviews. They gag them. That’s why when Dongguan reporters try to report from other places are gagged too. it’s tit for tat—it’s that simple. At the time, shows like City Expose, and Hong Kong Expose were very popular; you could call in with news tips. A lot of people in China watched them. And many decided to send in tips as well. They reported things they couldn’t stand anymore, cases that had already reached the high level. After received tips from China, when the Hong Kong crews came to film, they would be stopped from getting to the location where the tips came from. The government authorities would stop you.

Hua: I’ve felt since coming to Hong Kong that information is really open here.

For example, some of my relatives of my genera- tion or younger who were educated in the main- land know nothing at all about June Fourth. There are many things that they don’t know. It was in Hong Kong that I learned about June Fourth. It was in a Secondary-3 [equivalent to 9th grade in the U.S.] history class that my teacher showed us a video of June Fourth. I couldn’t help but cry watching it, seeing so many lose their lives there. I asked myself, “Why haven’t I seen this before? Is it fact or is it fiction?” I asked my mother afterwards. She gave me a single vague response: “If the government didn’t do this, then China’s economy wouldn’t be as good as it is right now.” How do you understand this response? It says that the older generation may not have the courage to face what happened then. That’s why I think that everyone here and the people  of my generation don’t know what happened back then.

Lian: There wasn’t any news about it then. I remember my parents bought a lot of rice, fearing that there would be no food to buy. This is my deepest impression from June Fourth.

Hua: My mother also mentioned that the neighbors were buying food in bulk.

Lian: Nobody knew what was happening; just that there might not be any food for sale on June Fourth, and that some people were sitting in Beijing and singing.

Si-si Liu: What advice would you give to mainland women who want to come to Hong Kong?

Mei: I would encourage them to come to Hong Kong, whether it’s for a few days or a few months. I used to know a woman at the ERB service center in our district who came to class every day. She told me that she wanted to be a janitor in the subway, working two hours a night for about HK$30 [$3.86] an hour. But the hours were from midnight to 2 a.m. She was new to Hong Kong and didn’t know much, so of course she thought that $30 an hour was high! I couldn’t believe that she actually did it. I said, “Hey, don’t do it. You can earn HK$60 an hour working as a domestic helper, why would you do this? If they need documentation, I’ll take you to the class.” Then I gave her my number, and said, “If you need anything, just call me.” She’s been in Hong Kong for a year now and has been working as a domestic helper for several months. She probably earns over HK$10,000 [U.S.$1,285] a month. When she saw me, she was really happy and said, “I really must thank you for your help back then!” I said, “I had to! You didn’t have a car, and there isn’t any way to get home when you get off at 2, 3 a.m.” She was riding a bike to get home. You know, it gets really dark at night, and on a bicycle with no lights, who can see you on the road?

There was another time—the first time when I was working at the desk as a volunteer at a social services agency—there was a woman whose husband died just a few days after she got here, and she had a child. I spoke with the director about her situation, to help her apply for welfare. I knew that the transition process is miserable, so I wanted to introduce her to agencies that could help her.

There are some women who come to Hong Kong after their children have studied two years of kindergarten, a lot like when I originally came to Hong Kong after I had a child. I would tell them about agencies that will provide free childcare so that they can go to work. And if I had free time, I said, their child could stay with me [while they work]. I understand their situation. If their financial situation is difficult, then they really need to find work. I just want to give them some more encouragement.

Lian: There are many good policies in Hong Kong; most of the time you can get the help you’re looking for. You don’t have to worry being kicked out of the door. If you have difficulty adjusting, there are many departments you can go to for help. It’s not like the mainland, where you can’t get help from anyone. This is what I most what to say to them.

Hua: I’m not so optimistic. Perhaps I would try to understand whether she has decided to come to Hong Kong, and how her life would change if she came. I hope they understand the situation beforehand. I think that Lian and Mei said it well, that most of the time people can find the help they seek. I think that this is true. It’s because it’s a good welfare system. But actually I think that you can’t say that Hong Kong’s welfare system is very good; many of the benefits only allow you to take a breath and not die. Hong Kong currently does not provide universal retirement protection, and the health care system is moving toward having those who can afford it buy their own health insurance.

Even though we do things by the book, and all the information is transparent, the allocation of resources is not equal. The poor always suffer more. On top of that, the new immigrants are to a certain extent discriminated against. This is why new immigrant must wait seven years before they can apply for welfare. That’s why many new immigrants have to live in cubicles. If you can tough it out, then your life will improve afterwards. That said, when compared to China, Hong Kong is a pretty good environment to change one’s life.

Si-si Liu: The Hong Kong government has again said that it wants to promote national education. I’ve read the consultation papers; it includes some moral components as well as understanding “national conditions, ” in the part about understanding China. It says that we have to do more to support the technological development of the motherland and her physical education achievements, and that we should feel proud of these things. But it doesn’t mention the disparity between the rich and poor, and that more emphasis is placed on the coastal areas in economic development; it doesn’t mention the neglect of the northwest, the mountain regions, and that some people lack clean water, and some people cannot read. Rather it only focuses on industrial development yet gives little mention to the consequences of that development. For example, the harms of pollution, imperfect environmental policies, and cancer villages in many areas due to pollution are all not mentioned. I’d like to ask whether you have any worries or fears. Or whether you feel that, oh, it’s all OK, it’s still better than the political classes back in the mainland.

Mei: I think that it’s better than the mainland. We have to choose a school for my son soon, and many parents are talking about which schools are good. But my husband said, “Any of them is good, so long as they’re better than the mainland.”

Lian: Here, everything is better than the main- land. I don’t have any other big demands. That is, we don’t have too many demands for my son. In short, as long as it’s better than the mainland, it’s OK.

Hua: I think that there’s a lot of brainwashing in national education. However, if a child can stay in touch with society, or if the family can help a child to so—say, if I took this child to protest the high-speed rail link to Guangdong or the demolition of Choi Yuen village, and then asked him to look at his teacher’s notes—then the child would have a his own understanding. I don’t really welcome the national education program. I think that that I can use other ways to give my child a more comprehensive worldview.

Si-si Liu: Towards your future, what hopes do you have? And what about your family?

Lian: My biggest wish is that we can live in a little bigger. As for the future, I’ve got to wait until my child is older to think about it.

Mei: I have a child. So long as my child is okay, then it’s fine—there’s nothing else. Also, I want to have my own home in Hong Kong. I’m a very traditional Chinese person—I really hope I can have my own house here.

Hua: I don’t demand much for myself, just hope there is not a big gap between the rich and the poor.

Si-si Liu: For different reasons you’ve all come to Hong Kong. Now that your families are all in Hong Kong, have you ever thought of doing anything in China, advocate for anything in China?

Mei: I took a course in Mandarin and realized that at different classes I meet people from different backgrounds. Actually, I took the classes so I don’t get cheated when I go shopping in China—learn some common phrases. The people from China told me, “After I came to Hong Kong, I really hated China. I want to bring my whole family here.” They don’t like China because it’s very dirty, a lot of uncivilized behavior. After they’ve enjoyed Hong Kong’s social welfare, they really want to bring their entire family here. But I still don’t understand why they hate China so much—because I’ve heard that their situation in China was pretty good. But they still don’t like China; they want to come out.

Mei: This past little while, my niece was doing her university entrance exams. She called me as soon as she put her pen down, she said, “Auntie, hurry up and help me inquire if anyone you know knows a university professor, please? I want to make some connections.” I said to her, “No! You want make connections already?” She said, “One of my classmate’s mom already made connections, guaranteeing admission. I’m so scared.” I said,  “First tell me if you knew how to do that exam.” “Yes.” “If yes, then you’re okay.” “But if everyone uses connections, and universities have limited spots, if the spots fill up, it doesn’t matter if you did well.” She was really worried. So I thought, if one were in China, without money, you can’t even be a human being.

Si-si Liu: As for the future, do you feel there is anything you can change in China?

Mei: In reality, most of the time, it’s not that I don’t want to express my opinion; it’s just hard to talk about it. As for China, it’s not that I don’t want to help; rather, it’s having the heart but not the ability. I’m not at a stage where I can express my opinion. A lot of times, I can’t even talk about simple things.

Hua: I don’t think this is purely a personal thing. This is because the government system on the mainland and its practices have affected a lot of issues in society. For example corruption, maybe there are people who don’t want to be corrupt, but they can’t help it and are forced to be this way. This is because if you aren’t corrupt you’ll be rejected, and you don’t want to bear the consequences. I just feel this—changing China—is not something that one person can do; looking at the entire system, I feel I’m not that kind of person. But I will start with myself; I will tell family about the things I’ve seen in Hong Kong, No matter the age, especially if they’re young, if they want to hear my opinions, then I will say as much as they want to hear. Even for people in my parents’ generation, I will say a few things here and there. Lately, I’m really happy because my mother said to me, “If you didn’t show me that film, I would not know how terrible the working conditions are at Foxconn.” Maybe a lot of people don’t know, that’s why there are so many people buying products like iPhones and iPads. Because I know the reality, I don’t buy those “i” things. Of course, you can’t stop them from opening an “i” store in Hong Kong, but at least I won’t spend my money there. Because I saw that film clip, I don’t feel good about. So change starts with your daily life. Therefore, in the mainland, I will tell relatives what I know. I burned the show [on CDs] for my relatives to watch—the part I was edited out. When my cousin saw it, she said it was nothing serious.

Si-si Liu: Thank you all for sharing!

Translation by Human Rights in China.

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